Gaslighting Parents: Signs, Examples, and How to Respond

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I have been in situations when someone said or did something and then gaslighted me by saying I was “too sensitive,” and “emotional.” Such experiences have left me feeling frustrated and downright furious.

One particularly painful experience involved being the only one speaking up about a problem colleague in a meeting at a past job. My supervisor and another colleague agreed with me about the situation, but during the meeting, they both changed their tune and did not have my back.

As I choked up, I was left looking like an emotional idiot in front of the Senior Manager, who could not understand the situation. Basically, I had been gaslit.

If you're not familiar with the term gaslighting, it's a form of emotional abuse in which the abuser manipulates the victim into doubting their memory, perception, or judgment. The famous film “Gaslight”, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, gives the best example of gaslighting.

In the film, a husband tries to convince his wife that she's going insane by making her question everything she sees and hears, including gas lights that appear to be dimming when they're not. Unfortunately, life can imitate art, and gaslighting in relationships is more common than you might think.

While gaslighting can happen in any kind of relationship, one form gaslighting called “parental gaslighting,” happens more often than you think. Parental gaslighting can take many forms, but the goal is always to control and manipulate the child.

If you suspect that you're being gaslighted by your parents, it's important to be aware of the signs and to understand how to deal with this type of abuse.

7 Signs of a Gaslighting Parent

1. Invalidating Your Experiences

A gaslighting parent will often dismiss your experiences or tell you that you're imagining things. They may say that you're “too sensitive” or that you're “overreacting.”

In the case of abuse, a gaslighting parent may even deny that the abuse is happening. They may use discipline as a way to excuse abuse.

If you try to talk to your parents about your experiences, they may become defensive or tell you that you're wrong. Some parents love to emphasize how things were different when they were growing up.

They may say that you should “just toughen up” and go on and on about how much better their generation was.

2. Controlling Your Emotions

These parents may try to control your emotions by telling you how to feel or what to think. If you are feeling sad or angry, they may tell you that you shouldn't feel that way. They may try to downplay your emotions or make you feel bad for feeling them.

Your emotions are valid, no matter what your gaslighting parent says. It's okay to feel sad, angry, or scared. These are all normal human emotions. However, if you show anger or fear, the gaslighting parent may blow things out of proportion and say you are crazy or out of control.

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A gaslighting parent may make you feel guilty for things that are not your fault.

No one wants to be thought of as crazy, so this accusation can be a good way to rein someone in and shut them up.

It can especially be frightful when this type of control or accusations comes from a next-of-kin such as a parent who legally can have you institutionalized.

3. Making You Feel Guilty

Unfortunately, guilt may also be used as a tactic in gaslighting. A gaslighting parent may make you feel guilty for things that are not your fault. They may try to blame you for their mistakes or for the problems in the family. They may even make you feel guilty for their abusive behavior.

One example of such guilt may happen if you decide to stay away from your gaslighting parents. They may guilt you by saying things like “I raised you and this is how you treat me?” or “After everything I've done for you, this is how you repay me?”

In true gaslighting fashion, they will bring others into the fold by making them feel like they need to take sides. Such outsiders may go as far as to contact you or call you out on social media and try to convince you that you're in the wrong.

4. Making You Question Your Sanity

As mentioned earlier, your sanity is often gaslighted. One way this sanity gaslighting may manifest is by the gaslighting parent constantly telling you that you're “imagining things.”

A gaslighting parent may also try to gaslight your memory. A common phrase they may use is ” I never said that”, in regards to something messed up they clearly did say to you – even if they said it several times.

However, that same parent(s) will conveniently remember something you said or did in response. This is a gaslighting technique called “memory hole gaslighting.”

5. Discrediting Your Achievements

If you accomplish something great, a gaslighting parent may try to downplay your achievement. They may say that it's not a big deal or that anyone could have done it.

They may even try to take credit for your achievement. This gaslighting tactic is called “brag-and-grab.”

For example, you may have put yourself through school with no support and little money, but gaslighting parents will later find a way to take all the credit if you end up being successful. Or they will make it seem like it was nothing out of jealousy.

6. Isolating You from Others

Gaslighting parents may try to isolate you from your friends and family. They may tell you that no one else understands you or that they are only trying to help you. They may also say that your friends and family don't care about you.

By isolating you from your support system, the gaslighter has more control over you. Take the movie, “Carrie” for example. Her mother gaslights Carrie by telling her that she is a sinner and that no one else will understand her.

While Carrie is an outcast, she does gain sympathy and support from a few kind souls at the school, such as her gym teacher and schoolmate, Sue. However, her gaslighting mother does everything she can to make sure Carrie feels alone, which results in tragedy.

7. Withholding Love or Approval

A gaslighting parent may try to control you by withholding love or approval. They may give you the silent treatment or make you feel like you're not good enough. This gaslighting technique is often used on children, but it can be used on adults as well. 

For example, a gaslighting parent may only give you attention when you do what they want or when you behave in a certain way.

For example, they may show “love” briefly if you made a good impression in front of their friends or if you did something they approve of. However, this “love” is often short-lived and may only last for a few minutes.

How to Deal with a Gaslighting Parent (7-Step Process)

Dealing with gaslighting parents can be difficult, but there are some things you can do to protect yourself. Here is a 7-step process that can help you.

Step 1. Keep a Personal Journal

One way to deal with gaslighting parents is to keep a journal. This will help you document what is happening and it will also provide a way for you to vent your feelings. Be sure to date each entry and include as many details as possible.

Basic details should include what happened, when it happened, where it happened, and how you felt.

Your journal can be as simple as a notebook or you can use a journaling app on your phone or computer. As you look back, you may be able to see patterns emerging which can help you understand what is happening.

Step 2. Set Boundaries

Setting boundaries will help protect you and it will also help you establish a healthy relationship with your gaslighting parents. Boundaries will help you protect yourself from their gaslighting tactics. Remember, gaslighters often try to control and exploit their victims. With healthy boundaries, you can take back control.

Some examples of boundaries you can set include:

  • Refusing to engage in gaslighting conversations
  • Ending gaslighting conversations
  • Not responding to gaslighting text messages or emails
  • Not spending time with gaslighting parents

You can talk to your parents, but make sure you keep the conversation short and to the point. Remember, you don't owe them anything. For example, you can call to check on them or pay a visit, but you don't have to stay for a long conversation if you don't want to.

If they begin to send gaslighting correspondence, don't make the mistake of engaging as you will end up going down an emotional rabbit hole. You can always take a snapshot to add to your gaslighting documentation and then delete the text or email.

Step 3. Create a Support System

Another way to deal with gaslighting parents is to create a support system. This can include friends, family members, or others dealing with the same issue. These people can provide you with the emotional support you need to deal with gaslighting parents.

Your support system should be people you can trust and who will believe you. They should also be people who will support your decision to set boundaries with gaslighting parents.

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These parents may try to control your emotions by telling you how to feel or what to think.

Don't make the mistake of confiding in people who are sympathetic to your gaslighting parents as they will likely gaslight you as well.

In addition to in-person support, you may find people online who understand what you're going through. There are many gaslighting forums and social media groups where you can find support.

Step 4. Seek Therapy

If you're struggling to deal with gaslighting parents, you may benefit from therapy. A therapist can help you understand what is happening and they can provide you with tools to deal with gaslighting parents.

Therapy can be especially helpful if you're struggling with anxiety or depression. A therapist can help you understand your gaslighting parents and they can provide you with coping mechanisms.

You can go to therapy in person, in a group setting, or online. A therapeutic support group can be helpful as you can talk to others who are going through the same thing.

Technology has also allowed online mental health services to become more accessible. While your gaslighting parents may have made you feel alone, you have many therapy options to choose from.

Step 5. Learn About Gaslighting

One way to deal with gaslighting parents is to learn about gaslighting. This will help you understand what is happening and it will also give you a way to identify gaslighting behavior.

There are many relevant books and articles available online. You can also find gaslighting podcasts and videos. By learning about gaslighting, you will be better equipped to deal with gaslighting parents and stay on the lookout to avoid others who exhibit the same behavior.

Some gaslighting books that may be helpful include:

The Gaslight Effect by Robin Stern

Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People

Step 6. Get a Restraining Order

In some cases, gaslighting parents can be abusive. If you're dealing with gaslighting and abuse, you may need to get a restraining order. This will protect you from your gaslighting parents and it will also provide you with documentation if you need to take legal action.

If physical abuse comes with gaslighting, you may get help from a domestic violence hotline, shelter, or restraining order. If parental gaslighting has gone over the edge into the online world, you can get a restraining order for cyberstalking. This will protect you from gaslighting parents who are using technology to harass or stalk you.

Step 7. Official Documentation

If you're dealing with gaslighting parents, it's important to document their behavior. As mentioned before, a personal journal is great for making note of your feelings, but you may need to create separate hard-core documentation for serious gaslighting events.

This will help you remember what happened and it can also provide evidence if you need to take legal action.

Take screenshots of any gaslighting texts and emails. Record any verbal conversations that turn to gaslighting. Having a small personal recorder is easy and won't be too obvious.

While it may seem extreme to have to record conversations with your parents, in some cases, it's the only way to protect yourself with extreme gaslighting.

Designate a folder or binder to save all gaslighting documentation. This will help you keep everything in one place and it will make it easy to access if you need it.

How Gaslighting Can Affect Children of Gaslighting Parents

While gaslighting can be difficult for adults, it can be especially damaging for children with gaslighting parents. Children of gaslighting parents can suffer from anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. They may also have difficulty trusting people and forming relationships.

Anxiety

Anxiety can show up in many ways for children of gaslighting parents. They may have trouble sleeping, suffer from stomach aches, or have panic attacks.

Children of gaslighting parents may also engage in self-harm or have suicidal thoughts. Once you move away from home, you may have anxiety when you visit your parents for obvious reasons.

If direct contact with gaslighting parents in adulthood proves to be too much, you may even suffer from anxiety at the mere thought of them. As suggested earlier, you may simply have to go no-contact.

Depression

Depression is another common issue for children of gaslighting parents. They may lose interest in activities they used to enjoy, have difficulty concentrating, or feel worthless.

It can manifest itself in physical ways as well, such as fatigue and changes in appetite. For children of gaslighting parents, depression can be a lifelong battle.

Low Self-Esteem

Children of gaslighting parents typically have low self-esteem. This is because gaslighting parents are constantly putting them down and making them doubt themselves.

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Keeping a journal is one way to help you deal with gaslighting parents by documenting what's happening and can help you vent your anger.

As a result, children of gaslighting parents often grow up feeling unworthy and unlovable. They may have trouble asserting themselves and end up in abusive relationships.

Difficulty Trusting People

It's not surprising that children of gaslighting parents have difficulty trusting people. After all, gaslighting parents have betrayed their trust time and time again.

As a result, children of gaslighting parents may have trouble trusting anyone, including well-meaning people. They may also have trouble forming attachments and be afraid of intimacy.

Problems in Relationships

Since gaslighting parents are usually narcissists, they tend to be terrible role models when it comes to relationships. Not only do gaslighting parents often have toxic relationships, but they also often gaslight their children's other parent.

As a result, children of gaslighting parents may have difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships. They may find themselves in abusive relationships or have trouble committing to a long-term relationship.

Signs You May Be a Child of Gaslighting Parents

After reading this article, you still may be unsure about parental gaslighting. If you're not sure whether your parents gaslighted you, here are some signs to look for as an adult.

  1. Do you doubt your own memories?
  2. Do you question your sanity?
  3. Do you feel like you're always walking on eggshells?
  4. Do you feel like you can never do anything right?
  5. Do you feel worthless?
  6. Do you have low self-esteem?
  7. Do you find it difficult to trust people?
  8. Do you have trouble forming attachments?
  9. Do you often feel anxious or depressed?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it's possible that you were gaslighted by your parents.

Final Thoughts on Gaslighting Parents

We’ve featured many articles on work and romantic gaslighting, but parental gaslighting may be the most damaging type of gaslighting of all. If you were gaslighted by your parents, it's important to understand that it isn't your fault. You didn't deserve it and you can't change it.

The most important thing you can do is work on healing the damage that was done. With time, patience, and self-compassion, you can learn to love yourself and build a life you're proud of.  

If you're a child of gaslighting parents, it's important to understand that you're not alone. Many people have gone through the same thing and there is help available. If you're struggling, please reach out to a therapist or counselor who can help you heal the wounds of your childhood.

Do what you can to live in peace and break the gaslighting cycle in your family. In the meantime, check out more help with gaslighting in the article 11 Ways to Turn the Tables on a Gaslighter in Your Life.

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